Breaking down the Mets' bullpen depth

February 16th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Anthony DiComo’s Mets Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

This is the fifth in a five-part Around the Horn series looking at how the Mets stack up around the diamond. Last up: the bullpen.

Around the Horn: Catchers | Infielders | Outfielders | Rotation

On paper, one of the Mets’ clear strengths is their bullpen -- and not just because all-everything closer Edwin Díaz will be back after missing last season due to a right knee injury. President of baseball operations David Stearns also brought in 11 relievers from outside the organization, providing lots of depth and plenty of spring competition to this relief corps.

The return of Díaz is clearly significant. Mets officials believe it won’t be the only reason why their bullpen thrives in 2024.

The closer:

Díaz faced live hitters Thursday at Mets camp for the first time since suffering a season-ending patellar tear during the 2023 World Baseball Classic. Although team officials instructed him to pitch at an 80-percent effort level, Díaz unleashed one fastball that registered more than 96 mph and threw a particularly devilish slider to tie up teammate Omar Narváez.

“I think that was my biggest step to come here and face hitters,” said Díaz, who went through a normal offseason progression after recovering fully from his injury around October. “I know I’m good, my legs are good. But that was on my mind -- I wanted to face hitters. Finally, I did it, and I’m really happy.”

Because Díaz is coming off an injury to his leg and not his arm, there’s little reason to believe he’ll start slowly despite missing a full season. Baseball’s best reliever in 2022, Díaz saved 32 games and produced a 1.31 ERA while striking out 118 batters over 62 innings -- with a 0.90 FIP that actually suggested he was a bit unlucky. Even if Díaz takes a modest step backward in his return, he should still rank among the game’s best closers. In the early days of camp, the Mets have no concerns about him.

For the Mets, one of the most difficult aspects of losing Díaz was that it forced them to push everyone else back in the bullpen. That resulted in Ottavino, Raley and Smith combining to record 18 of the club’s 34 saves last season. Díaz’s presence will allow those three to return to the seventh and eighth innings, after the Mets exercised Raley’s contract option and re-signed Ottavino. (Smith, who can be a free agent after this season, is back for his final year under team control.)

Those three have additional help in López and Diekman, who signed guaranteed contracts over the winter. Both are hard throwers who offer different sorts of looks -- López by inducing ground balls with his power sinker, Diekman by missing bats and producing soft contact from the left side. Overall, there’s a bit more depth here than the Mets had a year ago, when the Opening Day bullpen featured Ottavino, Raley, Smith and David Robertson in high-leverage roles.

The headlining newcomer here is Fujinami, who must fight for a roster spot despite signing a $3.35 million guaranteed free-agent deal. That’s because unlike many others in this group, he has accessible Minor League options and can be sent to Triple-A without clearing waivers. Bickford, Ramírez, Reid-Foley, Tonkin and Adams cannot.

(One name not listed above, Kyle Crick, is a veteran non-roster invitee whose chance to make the team has been scuttled by a calf strain.)

This appears to be a true competition in at least one sense of the word, with Stearns recently acknowledging that a pair of bullpen spots are up for grabs. But when it comes to relievers, teams tend to rely less on the results of a handful of spring innings, and more on the weight of two other factors: historical performances and contractual considerations. As such, the advantage figures to go to the five names above who are out of options.

Realistically speaking, most pitchers in camp right now -- plus several others who are currently in the Minor Leagues, or not yet in the organization -- will play a role in the bullpen over the course of this season. Last year, 30 players made relief appearances for the Mets. That’s more the norm than the exception these days.

The future: Nate Lavender,

Last year’s breakout bullpen performer was Lavender, a left-hander who made 42 effective appearances in the upper Minors. Lavender relies on a three-pitch mix, including a fastball that tends to flummox hitters despite lacking elite velocity. He should get a chance in the big leagues at some point this season. Orze was in a similar position two years ago, but he has since struggled at Triple-A, suffering through major command issues last season. Now 26, the right-hander is back in Major League camp with something to prove.